Hammerin' Man

Life sentences for unpaid fines? Trials in absentia? Stop your whining! Gene Hammermaster is one of the toughest judges in Washington—and possibly the worst.

Defendant: I'm spending over a hundred dollars [on] food a week.

Judge Hammermaster: Why so much?

Defendant: Because I have a girlfriend that lives with me. . . .

Judge: I'd suggest you get rid of her . . . you're just throwing away money there.

Of course everyone has bad days, including municipal court judges; but their vagaries of temper can have far-reaching effects. After all, two million cases a year—the majority of those heard in Washington—come before the state's 214 district and muni courts.

And after 35 years on the municipal bench in sleepy Sumner, the Honorable Albert Eugene Hammermaster has had his bad moments listening to, as he puts it, just about every "pity-pot story" there is.

No money, no job, no luck, "I've heard it all," says the 65-year-old judge during a friendly chat inside his awning-covered storefront law offices on Main Street, a few blocks from Sumner City Hall and muni court. Named in 1891 for US Senator and slavery abolitionist Charles Sumner, the settlement grew from mill town to a quiet community flanked by sprawling development and farmlands. Hammermaster grew up in the Puyallup Valley, home to a mostly white population increasingly infused with Asians and Hispanics, a small portion of them illegal immigrants.

The amiable white judge says he has a knack for spotting illegals, using his "gut reaction." In court, he tests his innate suspicions by asking defendants, "Are you legal?"

Part-time jurist and full-time private attorney, Hammermaster has practiced since 1958 as a real estate law specialist who also performs marriages (and, for a fee, provides the champagne and limo). The trim, church-going, mountain-climbing self-described populist flashes a wide, thin smile as he moves around the office chatting with staffers. "He's an honest man," says one of his employees. Another calls him "kindhearted." He assesses himself as someone whose judicial rulings are "advantageous to the defendants . . . I probably hand out less severe sentences than most judges."

He doesn't think of himself as a bad judge, and certainly not among the state's worst (see story p. 26). He's tough on scofflaws and slackers.

But he does have his days.

"It's been going on for years," says Seattle University law professor John Strait, who has performed a conduct review of Hammermaster's bench reign. "He has that rap down, 'I'm doing it for your own good.' Part of it is sincere, part of it is self-denial. Some of it is a ruse."

Tiring of the legions of accused who cry him a river, Hammermaster some years back began to invent novel legal solutions unique to his court. His methods included issuing warnings that he'd "throw away the key" if traffic offenders didn't pay their fines, in effect threatening felony life sentences for misdemeanor defendants.

Defendant: I don't make a lot of money, when I'm working part-time, I made five dollars an hour.

Hammermaster: Wouldn't it make sense that you spend the rest of your life in jail?

A REVIEW OF JUST 21 of his cases in 1996 turned up 12 defendants he threatened with an indefinite jail sentence or life imprisonment until fines and costs were paid (that sample was part of a larger record that Strait characterizes as "an embarrassment of [misconduct] riches.")

"Obviously, I can't give anyone life sentences," Hammermaster tells me with a twinkle. "No defendant took it seriously," though he nonetheless exceeded his authority by threatening such terms. His son David, also an attorney who is sitting in on our conversation this rainy morning, shakes his head agreeably. "It was just a way to impress upon the defendant the importance of paying the $350—the lousy $350," says David, himself a part-time muni judge who fills in for his father.

Apparently they agree on sentencing tactics. As the elder Hammermaster once told a defendant:

If I do find you in contempt of court, that means you stay in jail until [the fine] gets paid. And, in addition, if you're in contempt of court, you have to pay the cost of being in jail. That means that this fine gets added to at the rate of $40 a day. That's what? Almost $300 a week; over $1,000 a month, over $12,000 a year. That probably means a life sentence for a lousy $350 fine. That's what contempt of court means, sir.

AT LEAST THE ELDER Hammermaster, a judge appointed by town councils to administer weekly or monthly justice in four south Pierce County communities, Sumner, Orting, Wilkeson, and South Prairie, didn't tell the defendant to leave the country. That's advice he's given to some local offenders, particularly the Spanish-speaking.

"There's a legal reasoning behind that," Hammermaster says. When a guilty defendant's sentence includes a condition he break no more laws, a defendant who is also an illegal alien has—by being illegal—instantly violated that condition. Ergo, "One of the ways you become legal is to leave the country. That's all I meant by that. I don't think I got that message across to everyone," says Hammermaster, adding: "When you're speaking with people who can't speak English, you have to be blunt."

That tortured reasoning gets a rise out of Federal Way immigration attorney Tom Youngjohn. "It's amazing," says Youngjohn, a former public defender, "a city judge telling traffic violators to leave the country. I guess that's taking DWH cases—Driving While Hispanic—to the limit."

Hammermaster could be blunt with the mentally ill as well. In one instance, a former Western State Hospital psychiatric patient explained he wasn't able to pay his fine because he couldn't get work.

Defendant: I try to get a job everywhere, man, and nobody will fucking hire me. I can't stand being alone and being bored all the time.

Hammermaster: For somebody to say they're bored is ridiculous. If you're bored it's your own fault. It sounds to me like a bunch of pity pot, feeling sorry for yourself, which as far as I'm concerned is garbage. . . . You'll probably be coming back next time and saying they're keeping me so busy I'm going to crack up. Now you're telling me you're so bored you're going to crack up, and if you say well, I'm so busy I'm going to crack up, I know how to solve that too. There's a place here where you can have free room and board where you won't be busy at all, called the Crowbar Hotel.

THE EX-PATIENT MIGHT consider himself lucky, however, that he got a hearing. Sometimes, when the accused failed to show in Hammermaster's court, the trial went on without them.

"Yes, trials were held in absentia, but no findings [verdicts] were made," explains Hammermaster. By signing a form he personally constructed allowing defendants to be tried in absentia, the accused could be freed without bail and still request a trial later, he says. "Some argued I was doing something harmful to defendants, when in fact it was a benefit."

"Well, it just happens to be unconstitutional," says professor Strait. Hammermaster could also be impatient with defendants who found out they'd been tried during their absence and wanted a "new" trial.

Defendant: I wanted to plead not guilty, but I guess I have to [plead guilty] if you guys went ahead to the trial with me not being there.

Hammermaster: Well, that's, you need to tell me if you're to going to ask me for a new trial date, you need to tell me why I should do that when you failed to show up the first time.

Defendant: I was going to try and see if I can get a second trial, but if you don't. . . .

Judge: Well, you can talk away, but I'm certainly not going to let you out of jail until the trial date.

Defendant: I guess I'm going to have to plead guilty then.

HAMMERMASTER NOTES that town attorneys approved of his legal inventions. But, asks Strait, why would the towns complain?

"He was advised years back that his conduct was unconstitutional," Strait says, but local prosecutors "were quite happy to have Hammermaster slamming folks and collecting fines without the uncomfortable aspect of an adversarial process." The judge makes a humble $11,000 a year for his bench work, but the local towns, says Strait, "chose him because he generated a lot of income and got tough on the undesirables around town. The vast majority of cases were disposed on arraignment or with a plea. It was rare to have an attorney in his court defending a case."

Especially unique was justice for offenders spinning their woe down the way in Orting: The accused were sometimes cross-examined by the same man who arrested them, local police chief Ron Emmons. According to public record, Hammermaster allowed the nonlawyer to act as attorney for the city, sometimes negotiating and submitting plea agreements for the accused—in affect, improperly working both sides of the aisle.

DEFENDANTS COMPLAINED and attorneys grumbled about the Hammerin' Man's justice, but no one seemed to be listening. Defendants who plead guilty have no right to appeal and, notes immigration lawyer Youngjohn, "If they were illegal, they obviously had no rights to sue."

But one day in 1996, an inmate in Sumner's jail dropped a note in the mail to the state's court watchdog agency, the Commission on Judicial Conduct (CJC) in Olympia, wondering why he was still in the Crowbar.

"Judge Hammermaster has told me before that if I didn't pay my $300 fine he would throw me in jail for life," the inmate wrote. "I've sat out the time in jail to pay off the fine, but that's not acceptable to him."

The CJC got interested. After reviewing only a sampling of Hammermaster's rulings, the commission in 1997 filed an extensive complaint, charging the judge exceeded his authority, violated due process procedures, and in effect bullied the accused in all four town courts.

At a hearing, Hammermaster defended his unorthodoxy, contending that learning English, for example, was a "rehabilitative process." The judge conceded he may have violated a number of judicial canons, but now he had an excuse: It was his style as an independent judge, and the CJC was "second guessing" his decisions.

"He knew he was pushing the envelope," says Strait, who testified for the CJC at the hearing. "Some things, like the absentia trials and forms, I've never seen done anywhere."

The CJC came down reasonably hard: It recommended Hammermaster be suspended 30 days without pay, take legal refresher courses, and hire a tutor to school him on modern justice procedures. But the state Supreme Court, which automatically reviews such cases, went the CJC one better.

In a finding last October, an irritated court concluded that Hammermaster's "actions demand a very serious sanction." The judge was suspended for six months without pay. "Under these circumstances," wrote Justice Barbara Madsen, "the judge's ignorance and disregard for the limits of his authority is particularly disturbing."

It wasn't, so to speak, a life sentence: Hammermaster will soon return to the bench. He's on CJC probation for two years, but his suspension ends in April. Even with the charges hanging over his head, a supportive Sumner City Council had already reappointed him to a new term lasting until 2001 and appropriated $10,000 to defray costs of his misconduct defense. Says council member Kris Coppin: "In my opinion, Gene Hammermaster does have full support of the mayor, council, and many citizens."

She looks forward to the judge's return. He's ready too, although courtroom changes will come grudgingly, he suggests.

"We won't do any more in absentia trials," he says. "We're going to change the forms to comply . . . [though] that's one of the disappointing things, too. If there are forms that people don't like, let's talk about the forms." He won't threaten life sentences any longer, but he's unsure how to make illegal immigrants pay up. "Hopefully," he says, "the judicial mentor will be of some assistance in that." He smiles. There's that twinkle again.

Sex, booze, and brain damage

Odor in the court! Odor in the court! If you think something is wrong with our judicial system, it may be because you ran into one of these stinkers. by Rick Anderson

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